It should not have been difficult to cross the Canadian River. There was no narrow gorge in the Panhandle as there was in New Mexico, with 800 foot-tall cliffs to descend before reaching the twisting stream. Unlike people crossing the Missouri from Westport, Missouri to Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, Panhandle travelers did not have to take a ferry over a mile-wide, quickly-flowing and deep river. All one had to do was walk, wade or perhaps swim her horse, or drive her wagon and team across the inner river valley. Except the Canadian never made life that simple.
The Canadian formed a barrier to communication, trade and commerce well into the Twentieth Century. Its unpredictable rises and falls, combined with quicksand, often made crossing the river nerve wracking at best and lethal at worst. The same geology that gave the river quicksand also made building bridges difficult. Floods often carried away bridges at the times when they were needed most, leaving area residents frustrated and impatient for improvements.
The river’s unpredictability made crossing it difficult. In addition to the usual spring flood, or rise, boom or freshet, the Canadian also rose and fell with rainstorms. It was (and is) what hydrologists call a “flashy” river – it rose quickly after a local rain and then fell almost as quickly. Explorers and valley residents recorded numerous occasions where they crossed the river and a few hours later faced a roiling, quick flowing flood between them and their destination, thanks to a storm upstream.
All was not safe once the waters receded: the sandy channel of the river harbored quicksand. A mixture of sand and other fine sediment and water, the name “quick sand” came from the fact that the slurry moved and grabbed moving animals as if it were alive, as compared to the “dead” sand of sandbars and the river banks. Pools and stretches of quicksand seemed to be solid, if damp, river sand until something stepped into it or tried to drive across it. They sank, and the thick slurry trapped the unwary or unlucky soul. The harder he pulled his leg, the tighter the sand seemed to grip it, and finding a solid surface to hold onto was difficult. Those familiar with the river sometimes used sticks to test the surface ahead of them as they crossed, if the river had been up recently. Mr. George Tyng, the manager of the White Deer Land and Cattle Company, noted in his account book on May 10, 1897 that he paid $1.00 for a “pilot over the Canadian River quicksand” after a local flood. Some places were worse than others, and the better, firmer spots often became fords.
The settlement of Romero Plaza, later Tascosa, possessed a ford. The historian John McCarty noted the presence of a buffalo trail crossing the river near by, worn by generations of animals as they crossed the river there. In order to make crossing to the new railroad depot safer and to encourage business at Tascosa’s stores from ranches south of the Canadian, Oldham County officials installed a wagon bridge at the site.
However, the sands that added excitement to crossing elsewhere made any bridge on the Texas portion of the Canadian prone to washing away. No matter how deep bridge builders drove supporting piles in order to make a solid footing, they never seemed to reach a hard bottom. That is because over millennia the Canadian had deposited almost a hundred feet of sand in its inner valley. Early bridge builders did not have access to the technology and tools, or the finances, necessary to build solid piers that deep. Even into the Twentieth Century, floods carried off enough sediment from around bridge piers and bank-side trees to rip them loose. An upstream obstacle, such as one pier of a bridge, can accelerate scour as the water swirls around downstream, chewing out more sediment from the base of the next pier.
Tascosa’s bridge builders were not alone in their engineering trials and tribulations. Bridge wash outs became a regular occurrence along the Canadian, whether wagon bridges or later railroad trestles. Making matters worse, one bridge could destroy others if an upstream span broke up and joined the flood, as happened at Tascosa in 1893 when parts of the railroad trestle at Cheyenne broke free. Rapidly flowing water turned trees and bridge pieces into battering rams, tearing apart downstream structures. Thrifty valley residents then collected as many of the floating or stranded timbers as they could, using them for homes, fences, sheds or firewood in the timber-poor country.
The first bridge north of Amarillo lasted roughly 7 years. According to Amarillo rancher and historian John Arnot, the first bridge over the Canadian at Amarillo came into being during the summer of 1906 at the (then) enormous cost of $12,273.00. Captain Garnett Lee, a rancher from the north side of the river, christened the span “the Florence Bridge” after his daughter, Miss Florence Lee. In April 1913, high water washed out the Ft. Worth and Denver Railroad’s bridge at Tascosa. The timbers swept downstream and “became entangled in [Amarillo’s] wagon bridge; trees and other driftwood coming down the river lodged in the Tascosa bridge [now jammed up against the Amarillo bridge]; until the pressure became so great on the highway bridge that the two spans on the north end gave way and were washed down the river for a quarter of a mile. For over a year teams [of horses] were kept at the river by Potter County to pull the automobile traffic across the river.” The missing spans were replaced and the rest of the structure was raised higher the next year by the Austin Bridge Company for $14,350.00. That span lasted until June, 1938 when it was replaced with a “new and up-to-date bridge.” The “new” structure cost a mere $100,000.00.
Bridges continued washing away in the Twentieth Century and crossing elsewhere remained exciting at times. The railroad bridge at Canadian, Texas, traveled downstream in 1923’s floods, while the Atcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad lost a large bridge upstream of Tucumcari, NM in June 1937 after very heavy rains soaked the Canadian and Pecos watersheds. The missing span caused a train wreck and stopped rail-travel for several days on the east-west line. The headaches of crossing the Canadian at Tascosa/ Boys’ Ranch continued until the 1950s, when the state Highway Department finished a concrete auto bridge over the Canadian there. Farther upstream on the Bell Ranch in New Mexico, Mrs. William R. Tatom recalled the flood of 1923 because it was two or three weeks before they could cross at the ford. Two men rode across to test the riverbed and only then did the wagons try the Bascom ford. Four years later cowboy Ralph Bonds crossed at the Tinaja Gap in the morning and “I could hear it coming down” as a flash flood roared through the narrow valley. The waters were still up the next day at the safer La Cinta crossing but Bonds tried to cross anyway. His tired horse got washed “about two hundred yards” downstream before regaining its footing. After a second failed try Bonds decided to wait and crossed safely the next day.
The “tamed” Canadian no longer devours bridges, but those living along the stream still respect what the river once was. Local heavy storms can drop ten inches in an hour, raising the river and once again leaving quicksand to trap the overly optimistic.
Francklyn Land and Cattle Company Papers, Box 7 D. 36 3715 Fol. 69-73 “Voucher 1” in Panhandle Plains Museum Archive, Canyon, Texas.
John McCarty, Maverick Town: The Story of Old Tascosa (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1946; Enlarged Edition, 1968)
John Arnot, “Canadian River Bridges” in the WPA and John Arnot files, Ms Int files, PPHM Archive.
Wes Phillips, “Bridge Washouts at Canadian and Tascosa, Texas” video at www.panhandlenation.com/video/Tascosa_Bridge_Washout.html.
Martha Downer Ellis, Bell Ranch Recollections and Memories (Amarillo: Trafton and Autry Printers, Inc., 1985).